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A Conversation About Organic Agriculture with Chuck Benbrook

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opednews.com Headlined to H3 7/16/10

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In this regular series we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we feature Chuck Benbrook, Chief Scientist at the Organic Center.

Name: Chuck Benbrook

Affiliation: The Organic Center

Location: Enterprise, Oregon

Bio: Dr. Charles Benbrook is Chief Scientist at the Organic Center. He worked in Washington, D.C. on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues from 1979 through 1997. He served for 1.5 years as the agricultural staff expert on the Council for Environmental Quality at the end of the Carter Administration. Following the election of Ronald Reagan, he moved to Capitol Hill in early 1981 and was the Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture with jurisdiction over pesticide regulation, research, trade and foreign agricultural issues. In 1984 Benbrook was recruited to the job of Executive Director, Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences, a position he held for seven years. In late 1990 he formed Benbrook Consulting Services.

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On Nourishing the Planet: Promoting agricultural and economic development in Africa requires intimate understanding of the resources people have to work with, and the factors shaping the decisions farmers make about what to grow and how. Such understanding is a prerequisite to cost-effectively relax multiple constraints in unison. The "Nourishing the Planet" project excels at gathering and sharing this sort of key information and, for this reason, has much to contribute in shaping development assistant programs that produce meaningful, sustained results.

Can you describe the possible ways that organic agriculture methods can help improve farmers' income, increase food security, and decrease world hunger?

If you dispassionately look at what is needed to promote productivity and food security in chronically food short regions, core organic farming principles and practices have much to contribute, and certainly far more than the GMO and chemical-intensive corn-soybean production system in the U.S. corn belt. This is particularly true in restoring soil fertility and reversing the steady decline in soil organic matter.

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Six core principles and objectives of organic farming must form the foundation of sustainable food systems, and hence food security in Africa -

* Build the quality of the soil by increasing soil organic matter;
* Promote above and below-ground biodiversity for its inherent, multiple benefits (biological control, more diverse diet, lessening risk of catastrophic crop loss, etc);
* Integrate crop and livestock operations to exploit synergies between the two;
* Use crop rotations, cover crops, multi-cropping systems, and agro-foresty to utilize available sunlight and moisture more fully, especially in the spring and fall months;
* Avoid the use of toxic chemicals and hot fertilizers because of their potential to burn up organic matter, kill or reduce populations of non-target organisms that play valuable roles in food chains ultimately helping to feed people, and pose risks to people living in close proximity to treated areas; and
* Produce high-quality, nutrient dense products that will hopefully command a premium price in the market place, reflecting their true value.

What are some specific innovations, policies and techniques that could be implemented to promote organic agriculture while also improving livelihoods?

Obviously, the combination of new practices, inputs, and technologies needed will vary tremendously based on local conditions. Nearly everywhere, soil quality must be restored, a process that will require a number of years and a proper sequence of changes in management systems and inputs. What a farmer does in the first three years of this journey will differ considerably from common practices ten years down the road.

Early steps will be dependent to a greater degree on fertilizer and organic soil amendments from outside the farm, and will often need to be shipped hundreds of miles into the region, while in later years, much more of the organic materials needed to sustain soil quality will be generated on the farm or locally.

Unfortunately, many projects and policy initiatives have delivered uneven, unsustainable results because they stopped at just subsidizing fertilizer, and failed to support the farmer's evolution toward more biologically-based methods to sustain soil fertility.

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It is critical to support this incremental evolution, because the real and sustainable economic benefits to farm families kick in only after the transition is well along toward systems that have a high level of internal self-sufficiency, stability, and resilience.

It would be helpful for researchers and development organizations to provide recommendations for cost-effective trajectories of change in soil quality, including recommendations for the most cost-effective steps, and investments that will promote sustainable progress during each stage of the process.

More efficient capture and use of water, especially through micro-irrigation schemes, will also deliver significant benefits in many areas. Diversifying rotations to include small plots of several short season vegetable crops in various combinations will also deliver multiple benefits. Diversifying livestock enterprises to include more small livestock like chickens and rabbits is also a promising addition to the development assistance tool kit.

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